One Every Three Seconds: Groundbreaking New Tool Provides Access to Valuable Data on Arrest Trends Nationwide

Vera’s new tool and accompanying report outline early insights on high rates of arrests & racial and gender disparities that fuel mass incarceration.

Press Release – NEW YORK, NY – Over 10 million arrests are made each year in the United States, amounting to an astounding one every three seconds. Are all these arrests necessary? What are they for, and have they changed over time? Who are the people being arrested? And where? Are arrests “equitably” distributed, or a function of where police are deployed?

The answers to these questions are critical, because mass arrests are inextricably linked to mass incarceration. And because mass arrests disproportionately occur in communities of color, they exacerbate the disparities in the larger criminal justice system and, when unjustified, are counterproductive to public safety.

Yet the lack of easy-to-access data means these answers are hard to find and makes it nearly impossible to understand police practices and implement meaningful reform. To help unlock this critical information, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) today launched Arrest Trends, a groundbreaking tool that provides an extensive yet easy and accessible way to answer fundamental questions about American policing. By organizing publicly available datasets into one easy-to-use data platform, users can access, customize, and analyze decades of policing data, including comparisons between places – data that previously had been disparately located and difficult to interpret.

The release of the tool coincides with a new report, Every Three Seconds: Unlocking Police Data on Arrests, which includes information about the need for greater access to policing data, an overview of the Arrest Trends tool, initial findings gleaned from it, and potential areas for growth and evolution of this tool. For example, of those 10 million arrests, only 5 percent are for serious violent crimes. Instead, the majority of arrests are for low-level offenses, including drug offenses which have increased by 171 percent since 1980, and disproportionately impact people of color. Also, arrests of men have decreased by 7 percent since 1980 while arrests of women increased by 78 percent.

“American policing is in need of radical change. Mass arrests embroil people in the justice system and fuel mass incarceration, disrupting the lives of people of color, and eroding the community trust necessary for law enforcement to meaningfully promote public safety”, said Nick Turner, president of Vera. “Over the last five years, the deaths of black people at the hands of police – and the crises they generated – woke much of a somnolent nation to issues that communities of color have experienced for generations: racism, excessive use of force and over enforcement. We hope Arrest Trends can be an important source of information on this last problem, something that has been hard to take measure of, until now.”

Arrest Trends collates information from eight major data series, so that users can easily explore how the police use arrests. Early use of Arrest Trends has already uncovered important trends regarding drivers, disparities, and effectiveness of arrests, including:

  • Across the United States, an arrest occurs every three seconds. Today’s estimated total arrest volume—approximately 10.5 million arrests annually—has dropped to historic lows not otherwise seen since the early 1980’s, yet the number remains unnecessarily high The detrimental effects of arrests on mass incarceration, diminished public health and economic prosperity, racial inequities, and unwieldy levels of bureaucratic work for officers make reform an urgent issue.
  • Black people now make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but an estimated 28 percent of all arrests. The estimated volume of arrests of black people across the country rose by 23 percent from 1980 to 2014. In 2014, black people were an estimated 2.39 times more likely to be arrested for “drug abuse violations” than white people—despite the fact that research suggests that black people and white people use drugs at similar rates.
  • Only 5 percent of arrests are for violent offences. The majority of arrests are for low-level offenses such as “drug abuse violations” and “disorderly conduct”, which make up over 80 percent of arrests. The overreliance on arrests for low-level offenses may translate into issues of fractured police-community relationships and mistrust, further impairing police effectiveness and public safety as a whole.
  • Drug arrests increased by 171 percent from 1980 to 2016, and now account for over 1.5 million arrests annually—the vast majority of which are made for possession of marijuana. This stark increase suggests that policing practices remain largely punitive in nature. In light of the rising opioid epidemic—and the abundance of research suggesting that justice system involvement exacerbates rather than solves substance use disorders—it is imperative that we question our response to what is fundamentally a public health problem.
  • Suburbs within metropolitan areas have the highest average arrest rates than any other area. To date, there has been limited research on suburban arrest trends, making this finding particularly worthy of exploration. This is especially true given that a number of high-profile police enforcement-related events in recent years that resulted in deaths—of black people in particular—have occurred in suburbs such as Ferguson, MO, Falcon Heights, MN, and Balch Springs, TX.
  • Arrests of women increased from 1980 to 2014 by 83 percent, while arrests of men decreased 7 percent over the same timeframe. In 1980, women accounted for an estimated 16 percent of all arrests, but in 2014 they accounted for 27 percent. Women are more likely than men to be arrested for low-level, non-violent offenses such as drug possession. These types of offenses are exacerbated by life challenges such as poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, and significant physical or behavioral health struggles that also disproportionately impact women.

“At a time when confidence in the police is low—particularly within communities of color — increased transparency and access to information about police practices is more important than ever, said Rebecca Neusteter, director of Vera’s Policing Program. “We hope that Arrest Trends will generate dialogue about the role of policing, support police agencies on their path to reform, and be used to highlight the extent to which local decisions about arrests create disparity and may act as a primary driver of mass incarceration.”

Looking ahead, Vera will publish subsequent reports that dive into additional findings and insights of note from Arrest Trends, such as which agencies most contribute to high arrest volumes, which have shown marked improvements and why, and where the greatest racial disparities exist. Perhaps most importantly, this tool will help identify agencies with which to collaborate in developing and testing alternative-to-arrest policies and practices.

“Arrest Trends highlights the fundamental challenge facing policing in the 21st century”, said Sheriff Jerry Clayton from Washtenaw County, Michigan. “Too many agencies are devoting their resources to responding to non-violent behavior and arresting people for minor crimes, while many of the more serious offenses go unaddressed. This timely and valuable tool will help create alternatives to arrests that improve public safety while building strong and sustainable relationships within our communities.”

To transform the nation’s policing practices, we must first understand them. Arrest Trends seeks to unlock this important information and make it accessible for all people who are involved with and care about the American criminal justice system.

Arrest Trends is supported by the Vera Institute of Justice’s Capital Campaign, Microsoft Cities Team, and the Charles Koch Foundation.

** VIDEO: How to use the new Arrest Trends Tool **

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